Memoirs of a Historian


This is an exerpt from a larger story. © 2012, Elizabeth Cook

At the times when I forget to come to a meal, to answer the telephone, or to clean up the clutter that is my office, my wife often calls me a useless nostalgic, a helpless romantic for the histories! In her heated voice these are insults, but to my ear, the truth was never so simple nor so pleasant. I reside within a construction of antiquated facts, dates, and recordings, all lifted up from the pages of history. A happy existence, from which the mist of the old, old past rarely clears, is my perfect study.

When those mists do clear, in the figurative sense I must blink and adjust to the present, whose flat sounds and uninteresting aspect does discourage me frequently. My wife’s hustle and bustle, her complaints and her frustrations, come from an immeasurable distance. There are no kings or mighty dynasties, no heroic battles or fascinating exploits. Plato, Augustus Caesar, Genghis Khan, Francis Drake, Napoleon, Saladin; all such great men are extinct. The celebrities and supposed leaders of today make for the poorest of substitutes. This leads me to question what my wife can see around her which keeps her from the perusal of my world where the Little Corporal and his fellows still live.

My world is mostly contained between dusty covers, for books are a vital part of my life. What to do without my Gibbons, my Churchill, my Herodotus, or my von Ranke? Or the hundreds of newer books I possess in addition to the classics? I know their pages well, and as I accumulate new journals and volumes I trace over their fine black print until I am similarly intimate with their contents. The piles of these venerable items are what mainly constitute the “clutter” in my office that I am ordered to keep neat and tidy. But history knows no bounds, and though some might seek to organize my books, the true lover of history picks up what takes his fancy and not what is next in line on a shelf. The true lover knows the chronology of things without them being set down in that order.

Yet I stop here, for already I stray from what are supposed to be my memoirs of an unforgettable day. My pen (I do not like those new-fangled computers, though I could plunder one if I wished) runs on with a mind of its own, occupied by trifles. I must return to late this morning, which is when I first saw anything of the phenomenon.

I was in my office, working at the Wars of the Roses; revisiting the scene, as I like to say. The first indication that I received of anything amiss beyond the four walls of the room I sat in came precisely at twelve o’clock. My companion-in-life should have been calling fortissimo that I was late for lunch again, yet it was not even the absence of her voice that made any impression upon me. In fact, I would have continued in blissful examination of Richard’s position at Calais for some time, were it not for a much more dramatic interruption than her daily ritual. The screech of tires sounded in the street, and an automobile came hurtling into the side of our house.

There was an appalling crash and the tinkling of glass. The noise reminded me forcibly of my bedside alarm, which my wife sets for eight o’clock each morning. And it was entirely due to that resemblance to my alarm clock that as the crash startled me into looking up, I actually looked at the grandfather clock in my office.

I should explain that this was an action never heretofore performed. Most clocks suffer terrible neglect from my attention, and none so much as the one in my place of study. Only because of my unprecedented glance towards the grandfather clock can I now record that the crash occurred at twelve o’clock noon. But look at that clock I did, for the first time in its long residence in my office corner, and I like to consider this as the beginning of everything remarkable that the day has held.

I rushed outside, curious and avid as is the human way when anything impressive or possibly gruesome has happened. My way out of the house was shortened conveniently by how the bay window of our living room had fallen to pieces, making a useful sort of doorway out into my wife’s petunias. Easing myself down the rather large step from carpet to dirt and flowers, I observed that a black car had swerved off the gentle curve of our suburban street, probably at a suicidal speed, and had made acquaintance with the red brick of 2 Thistle Road (that being our house). Now I am no expert on cars, but this one reminded me strongly of what I thought Mr. Ford’s original Model T might have been like. Perhaps the company was running out of new ideas?

With a sick screech the door of the battered car was forced open, and the driver fell out in a heap. A boy not more than twenty or thirty years old, soot streaked, dishevelled  and shell shocked, regarded me with crossed eyes. Only then did I remember that I had dressed in my favourite Napoleonic costume that day, since my wife was still washing the Bedouin get-up which I usually wear on Thursdays. I realized that he must think me quite a sight, perhaps not one conducive to recovery from a car accident, and I wondered what I should do about it.

Yet the driver and I were distracted from each other by a series of loud ‘Oh my!’s and other exclamations coming from number three’s porch. Mrs. Next Door, a silly girl in pant suits whom I refer to (in the privacy of my own mind, as Victoria doesn’t like it) as Marie Antoinette, had come out and was making a spectacle of herself, calling to the driver and asking if he was all right. She fluttered like a canary on her perch, important with pretended concern. This only served to make the boy stare at me again, and faint.

“Why he’s fainted right away, the poor thing! You have frightened him somehow!” Marie Antoinette was admonishing me. “You and that outlandish costume hat of yours, Mr.—”

I’ll admit that I got rather indignant and red in the face on behalf of my hat, which was no costume, but genuine, and in another moment I would have surely made some retort that I would have regretted when my wife heard about it. But the cause of the driver’s crash was coming into hearing, and Marie Antoinette was forgotten.

When I grasped the meaning of those sounds, my heart sung. I detected (five dozen?) sets of hooves pounding down the suburban street, accompanied by the squeaking wheels of either chariots or artillery batteries, along with all the miscellaneous clankings and voices of a military force on the move. Oh, to Maire Antoinette all of it must have been meaningless noise, but to me! I who had read so fully of wars great and obscure, I who had watched countless documentaries and imagined campaigns in the deepest of detail, recognized these things as if I had lived them.

There was the matter of a few moments of suspense, and then the approaching company swung around the house on the corner and into view. Marie Antoinette’s scream rendered her more canary-like than ever before. The uniformed men’s buttons were polished, their muskets and rapiers were at the ready, and though their mounts cantered order was retained. Sure enough, I counted sixty horses, and three batteries were being pulled behind the precise ranks. It was a glorious sight, illuminating the prim and quiet lawns, the blank and similar houses of Thistle Road. I could scarcely believe it, I was so happily amazed. A figure on a tightly reined white charger paced at the fore of the soldiers, his bicorne hat agleam, the tricolour flag of France carried by another rider close behind him. He sighted the black car where it had plowed along our yard and into our house, and he gave a great shout.

“There! There is our quarry!” he cried. His fist in the air, he spurred his white horse forward.

The party gave an answering shout and followed their leader enthusiastically, plunging forth in a wave. Where was my wife, to enjoy this spirited charge? Really, where was she? Shouldn’t she have come outside long ago, when the car first crashed? It was not like Victoria to be lax, to let anything of significance sort itself out. Where had she gotten herself to?

(I still have no answers to the above questions; however, I have decided that they aren’t relevant. They retreated from my consciousness soon after I thought them, and do not trouble me now.)

I found myself walking forward to meet the charge of the soldiers and their leader. I was aglow with a sense of something that I was quite unused to, which made me act without any intention in mind. I know only that what felt like a very large smile was making my cheeks sore, and that the cascade of horses careening forward did not crush me. The leader turned his mount on a dime, skidding to a stop a few meters in front of me, and his men followed suit.

“How now, sir?” he inquired gruffly, and there I recognized him. “Another of my countrymen is stranded in this godforsaken place?”

“Bonaparte!” I exclaimed, and I am sure that I stood on tiptoe. “Bonaparte!”

“General to you, sir,” he said, but he puffed up a bit as he spoke, so it was no rebuke. “What have you here, that you have so gallantly captured for us?” And he indicated the car and the limp driver across my lawn.

“Why, Bonaparte!” Gladly I gave the Model T into the great leader’s charge, providing him with an account of its appearance. This retelling made some impression upon the milling soldiers, who acclaimed my comportment with loud cheers. They trussed up the car with numerous lengths of rope, and hitched it to the back of one of the batteries, all under the direction of Bonaparte.

The boy-driver was also knotted up very tidily amid loud speculation as to whether or not he was a filthy Russian, and he was placed on one of the pack horses. I observed these efficient labours with immense satisfaction; the calm and complete commanding presence of Bonaparte, the quick and clever obedience of his men, the neat lines in which the company kept everything assembled! This was a page out of one of my books come alive.

“Now, sir,” Bonaparte turned back to me, “shall you join my company? No Frenchman will be left alone here unless he wills it!”

The reality that he himself spoke English, and regarded me as French though I was clearly speaking English also, was unimportant. My immaculate uniform and bicorne hat compelled me to go with Bonaparte’s company, for I certainly looked like an officer among them already.

“Lend me a moment, General,” I asked of him. “There is one thing I must get.”

He nodded generously, and I stepped back through the smashed window and up into the house. Invigorated, I found that my knees no longer troubled me at the large step, and I hastened through the living room and towards my office. There was a large and exotic-looking tortoise in my wife’s favourite knitting chair, her needles actually beneath its front feet, but I took pity on it and let it be. Surely it would make good use of the place while I was gone. In my office, I took down my volume on the Napoleonic Wars… and hesitated. I said one thing, but must I leave all these books?

It was agonizing to make the selections, and in the end I came out of the house laden with about a dozen volumes of various sizes. The good French soldiers immediately made exclamations and rallied to relieve me of my burden, while Bonaparte looked benevolently on. Then he called to me, and said that I could climb up behind his lieutenant, and we would be off.

Getting on the horse was really no trouble. I was not ignorant of the procedure, and I venture to say that I conducted myself with admirable spryness. The lieutenant was a bland but pleasant fellow with a mop of unfortunately red hair, and he complimented me nicely on my “ornate earpiece” (I did not presume to correct his description of my hearing aid). So I sat pillion to the action as the cavalry moved out.

It was truly something, swaying with the motion of the horse, feeling each of his hooves meet pavement as Thistle Road was left behind. It was not clear what Bonaparte was looking for, but he gave clear, reassuring commands over his shoulder every now and then. I heard a slight stir as we started down each new street, but by the time we had gone past the first few houses curtains closed and the suburb was submissive around us. The artillery rumbled behind us and Bonaparte’s flag bearer waved his standard triumphantly, as if the people’s cowering behind their doors enabled him to claim the area for France.

It was with perfect equanimity that I saw this, for surely I had become one of the troupe, one of the Frenchmen, and any gain of France’s was a gain of mine. Regarding the suburbs from the horse’s back, travelling in the way a man should travel, I was fully able to view the silly red brick buildings with the scorn they deserved. How much better they would be if they were Bonaparte’s!

I must have shouted something of the last up to the great leader, for he bestowed upon me a dignified smile while his soldiers vociferously seconded my motion. The red-haired lieutenant commended the wisdom of my statement, and he rummaged about for a bottle which he then handed back to me. I took a swig—burning stuff that I hadn’t tasted since…! Well, since a long time ago. The bottle was passed around, and emptied itself in making the circuit. I looked into flushed faces and bright eyes, and was convinced that my new fellows were enjoying themselves.

Bonaparte suddenly bellowed a string of excited words to the trumpeter, and there was a blast of notes. Before I had quite realized it, we were all in a gallop, the horses going full tilt after the flashing white of Bonaparte’s charger. Order was forgotten for a few jumbled minutes, and there was only the rush. Amid the confusion I craned my neck to descry a small group of infantrymen who had appeared out of a side street, and we bore down on them (the artillery broke away, being of little use in these quarters.) Somebody shouted “Russians!” and the call was taken up in deafening hue. I thought I caught some distant yells of “Frenchmen!” coming from the group of infantry, but I was too occupied in yelling “Russians!” to be sure.

A rapier found its way into my hands and I waved it in the air (Russians!). Bonaparte’s charger slackened enough to be overtaken and protected by a rank of admirable soldiers, and the trumpet blasted again. Muskets were firing all around me, and then we collided with the enemy.

My admiration for the tactics of the great leader knew no bounds. He drew one line of our cavalry to the flank, and from its centre he directed a wedge into the infantry formation with such perfect judgement that I could not imagine a better strategy. The remaining cavalry (of which I was a part) followed the lieutenant’s horse to the fore and split the infantry’s front line. Muskets cracked all this while, lead shot zipped between firearms and men, and I saw Russians falling as the tide flowed in our favour  My rapier was bloodied a trifle as I waved it about, calling encouragement to my Frenchmen. There was death, yes, some of ours and some of theirs, but death is only the final tribute to combat! And the indisputable fact that the fight was conducted brilliantly by Bonaparte, and that fewer of ours died than theirs, lent more glory to the scene.

Some time later we picked up our things and remounted, the slew of Russian infantry decorating our wake. The men grinned, a few with bandages around limbs or heads or torso, but still grinning with all heart. I had the lieutenant’s horse and musket to myself now, his red head lost somewhere behind us, and so I handled the reins of a noble creature. He most obligingly took me up alongside the great leader, whom I saluted with the bloody rapier.

“If you will permit my saying so, you are a very good man!” Bonaparte told me judiciously. “I saw you in the melee, sir, and your parry was most spirited. Would you condescend to become an official part of my company? There is the post of lieutenant vacant.”

I shall never again feel elation as I did at that moment. More years than had already slipped off my shoulders fell away at his speech. What words I used to thank Bonaparte, I do not know, but words I used aplenty in accepting his honourable offer. A medal was given to me from the great leader’s hands, and pinned in its place on the left breast of my blue jacket. “This is a sign of my favour ” Bonaparte told me, “and well you deserve it, sir.” To my eye, the golden stars around the rim of that medal shone more brilliantly than the sun.

Now I sit here on a little hillock, under a shady tree, with the Frenchmen and their horses all around me. My pencil is still, and my memoirs for the day are done. We have quit the suburbs for the moment, in order to eat and regroup, but no doubt we shall return to conquer and loot soon. I shall be indispensable with my knowledge of the terrain. Already I know the names of many of the men assigned to my direction, and I have acquainted myself with a few of their commands and codes; the delightful study of the artillery is yet to come.

All in all I must pronounce the past hour the most spectacular one of my entire existence, from looking at the grandfather clock, to crushing the Russians, to eating rations under a tree.

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